Not religious? Then say so!

No Religion

It’s been announced that the 2011 Irish Census will take place on Sunday, April 10th. The last Census took place in 2006, so it’s fair to say that a lot has changed since then. Most questions on the census form are fairly straightforward, dealing with how many people live in the house, and other such objective data. There is one question I’d like you to give a little more consideration to answering this time around, and that’s question 12: What is your religion? Many people use this section of the form to joke that they are a Jedi (or other similar answers), but when you fill out your form this year, I’d like you to consider ticking the “No Religion” box instead. I think this is important for a number of reasons, and I hope that, by the end of this blog, you may agree with me.

Firstly, you’re not a Jedi. Regrettable as it is, not one of us possesses a lightsaber, and even if the technology did exist, would you really want to deal with all of that preachy “fear the dark side” nonsense just to wave one around? It’s always worth a bit of a giggle to see people filling in things like Jedi, because for many, it’s their opportunity to make fun of organised religion, but this is not just a simple web quiz, or a form being filled in by marketing staff in matching t-shirts on Grafton Street.

Secondly, the data given on the Census isn’t just going to end up in a pie chart on the back page of the Daily Mail. It will be used to make decisions about where public money is spent, what facilities are provided, and how the government should best represent its people. And thirdly, it is one of the few ways in which you can declare yourself not of the church in a country still dominated by religion.

You might think it a little strange, but on examination, it seems that it’s harder to shift the label “Roman Catholic” than it is to shift blood stains. Generally, baptism happens when you are an infant, and are, really, in no fit state to object, and from this point onwards, you are labelled Roman Catholic (or, if you are older, and have decided not to go to church any more, perhaps a lapsed Catholic). Most people would have been reasonably happy to be labelled Roman Catholic or a lapsed Catholic until recently, but since the last census, there has been wave after wave of scandal involving the Church. This led me, along with many others, to reconsider my position as a member of the church. It’s no secret that I don’t believe in god, or religion, and certainly not in the Church, but, in the past, it impacted so little on my life that I didn’t really care. Now, in light of the child abuse scandals, and the way in which the Church dealt with them, I do care, and I don’t want to be considered a Roman Catholic, a lapsed Catholic, or in fact any kind of Catholic. In short, I want out.

Some time ago, a website called CountMeOut was founded, to allow people to formally defect from the church. It allowed you to look up your diocese and identify who you should contact and, if you filled in some details, would even generate the relevant form letters for you to send. Over 200 people defected from the Archdiocese of Dublin alone in 2009, (and a reported 6000+ in total) and over 300 had done so in 2010 before the whole process ground to a halt. This was not due to a resurgence in faith, or a vision of the divine mother – it was due to the Church. In 2010, the church released a revision to canon law, removing all references to the process of formal defection.

The people behind the CountMeOut website have been trying to get church officials to clarify the process for defection, with little success, since late 2010. There seems to be a lot of uncertainty as to the process, and although the Dublin Archdiocese has said they intend to make note of any who have expressed a wish to defect, this is not the same as a removal from the baptismal register. In addition, the following statement from Assistant Chancellor Rev. Fintan Gavin, D.C.L of the Archdiocese of Dublin concerning the changes to canon law seems to reaffirm the notion that once you’re baptised, you’re stuck:

Through baptism a person is born again, becomes a child of God, made like to Christ by an indelible character. He/she is also incorporated into the Church. For Christians that rebirth into Christ and his Church is a permanent, enduring reality. In a natural family, where offspring wish to have nothing to do with their family of origin, the familial bond, nonetheless, endures. It is the same with the family that is the Church of Christ. This is the key and essential difference between baptism and being, for example, a member of an organisation. In the latter case one simply resigns. No bond endures with the organisation after resignation.

The Church regrets but respects the decision of those who choose to leave. But such an act cannot change a fact of faith: that the sacramental bond of belonging to the Body of Christ cannot be lost by any such act. The Church, as a result, will always be there for them. The sacramental bond remains the basis for its care and interest. As a result, no action of the Church can ever give rise to a doubt or give a contrary impression concerning these fundamental tenets of Christian faith.

The formal act of defection related specifically to the right to marry. It was brought in to facilitate the exercise of the right to marry by those members of the faithful, who, due to their estrangement from the Church, were unlikely to observe the prescriptions of canon law that require a specific form of marriage to be undertaken for its validity. In relation to this, it is important to remember that marriage is an institution within society pre-dating its establishment as a Sacrament by Christ.

Baptismal registers record among other things, those acts which affect the exercise of one’s right in the Church. So, for example, it records when one is married in the Church, or is ordained. Formal acts of defection were recorded in baptismal registers for the same reason.

De facto defections, in general, refer to those who leave the Church without any wish to have this recorded. It now also refers — with the abolition of the formal act of defection — to those who wish to have their desire to leave the Church recorded: such acts do not have any legal effect in canon law and so are no longer noted in the baptismal register.

The maintenance of a register that records the desire of those who wish to leave the Church is an initiative of the Archdiocese of Dublin. It is an attempt, in the present circumstance, to acknowledge and respect those who wish to record their desire to leave the Church.

It would be trite to ask what Fr. Gavin thinks of other indelible marks that the church has left on people, but I cannot help but wonder if he would answer.

It might be tempting to say that none of this matters very much, but to ignore the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Ireland would be foolish. We are one of the few “modern” countries to maintain a blasphemy law, updating ours while most countries were quietly repealing or ignoring theirs. Our national broadcasters are tied to a schedule of religious programming. Our constitution preamble “humbly acknowledges all our obligations to our Divine Lord“, and begins with the words “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred”. We begin, middle, and end with religion.

The Census is a chance for the people of Ireland to paint a true and accurate picture of what life is in this country. Using this picture, our government will decide how best to direct our country, so that we may prosper in the future. I believe that any society sufficiently advanced does not need religion, and I think that it is time we made that clear. In the past, we have seen that silence with regard to church matters does not benefit the people of this country. If you’re religious, feel free to disregard this post, but if you’re not religious, the for god’s sake, say so!

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